Sipping a 1997 Brunello in an empty wine bar, a view of Tuscany’s Orcia Valley all to ourselves at sunset, my companion and I joked about the supposed end of luxury travel.
We were in Montalcino, a tiny hilltop town that normally attracts wine and food connoisseurs with its world-famous Brunellos and fruity, spicy olive oils. At least seven restaurants were closed on a Friday in July, and those open held few diners.
We seized the opportunity and drove to Poggio Antico, run by Rome’s well-known chef Roberto Minnetti, for a six-course meal capped by the trip’s most memorable delicacy, an earthy truffle gelato — no reservation required.
Italy and its luxuries are within reach even in times of tighter budgets. With a home-swap service and some creative planning, what we would have spent on accommodations covered our food and local transportation costs.
The trip’s only real expenses were $800 for airfare and $100 to join the swap program. For that we got two weeks in Italy, including three days in Rome and daytrips from our Tuscan base to Pienza, Siena, Orvieto, Todi, Montalcino and the Maremma coast.
First-time home-swappers, beware the burden of choice. We spent months trolling HomeExchange.com and negotiating potential date-ranges with families in France, Brazil and Italy interested in our one-bedroom Greenwich Village apartment. Finally, we took a two-story stone farmhouse just outside Castel del Piano on the slopes of Tuscany’s inactive volcano, Mt. Amiata.
Using the same service, which also provides rentals, we found a one-bedroom apartment for 80 euros ($114) a night in Rome, much less than the average pensione at 130 euros ($185). It was central, pleasantly decorated with Chinese antiques, and pushed us off the tourist path.
Wine Bar Bonus
Rome’s enoteche, or wine bars, often serve free snacks, another way to cut costs. In the tiered gardens of the Hotel de Russie, where Picasso once drew and where you’ll find the city’s best people-watching and plastic surgery, our two glasses of wine were 30 euros, accompanied by a plate of fresh fruit, olives, chips and mozzarella skewers.
After our unfrugal aperitivo, we compensated with dinner at Da I 2 Ciccioni, an unmarked restaurant in Rome’s artsy Trastevere neighborhood. We paid 30 euros each for a family- style feast of pasta a la amatriciana, a lemony roast chicken, squid with peas and copious amounts of wine, limoncello and grappa.
Costs dropped dramatically once we got into the countryside around Mt. Amiata. We also realized what an amazing trade we had made.
Our farmhouse overlooked the Orcia Valley, with its patchwork of umber fields and vineyards. A huge brick forno in the backyard — part wood-burning oven, part barbecue — provided a stove, and entertainment, for nights in. We grilled bistec a la fiorentina, a thick T-bone steak from the local butcher for 18 euros, with olive oil and salt. Lamb ribs with rosemary from the garden was 12 euros.
The homeowner’s brother, Stefano, who tends the property’s olive orchard, showed up most nights with decent homemade wine and stories about the house’s history in World War II. Olive oil and a huge jug of grappa also materialized from the cellar when Stefano came by, as did sheep, summoned by his shouts of “Quay! Quay!”
A hike down the valley one day led us to a small clear stream, just the right temperature for a swim, and, around the next bend, a private castle built in 1042.
Saving at least $2,000 on accommodations also meant we could splurge. In Rome, a tour of the Coliseum and the Roman Forum for 22 euros each was a best buy, as a witty guide spun yarns from 21 centuries of history in four hours, full of gladiators and vestal virgins.
Our best meal in Rome, lunch at Hostaria Romana, was 50 euros for two. Highlights were carciofi alla guidea, or flattened, fried artichokes; spaghetti carbonara; and complimentary hazelnut biscotti.
Dinner in the gardens of Al Vecchio Forno in San Quirico d’Orcia, which included a memorable pasta with truffle shavings, a taste of Tuscany’s famous Chianina cattle, a half-bottle of Brunello di Montalcino and fried squash blossoms, was 83 euros for two.
At Cisterna nel Borgo, a hilltop restaurant in Castiglione D’Orcia, we had a restaurant-perfected bistec a la fiorentina, an amazing experience at 70 euros. The meal included pasta, wine and the region’s famous Ribollita soup for a total of 107 euros.
Wine, cheese and olive-oil tastings along Tuscany’s winding roads are free, but given that the owners usually break off work to give you a tour, buying a bottle or two is a good idea. After a tour of Sesti vineyard’s biodynamic cellars, we bought a Rosso, a younger wine made from the region’s Sangiovese grape, and its aged, certified cousin, the Brunello, for 40 euros.
The challenge of living modestly was also one of living locally, and led to the trip’s best moment: making pizzas from scratch in the forno — topped with our hand-ground pesto, wild boar sausage, and buffalo mozzarella. Cost: 10 euros.